A flurry of development in the Kennebunks has prompted a philosophical tug-of-war about the towns’ identities.
By Rob Sneddon
Photographed by Cara Slifka
[I]f the character of a place derives from the people who live there, then this scene on a quiet Thursday night in March says more about the Kennebunks than a dozen picture-perfect postcards of Dock Square teeming with tourists or Cape Porpoise Harbor crowded with lobsterboats. Two-dozen residents, most over 40, are settled into folding chairs on the second floor of Washington Hose Company, the old fire hall in Kennebunk’s Lower Village. The view out the window is a still life of bare tree limbs. A thin fog, fed by snow cover that has lingered into spring, has leached all color from the early-evening sky.
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These intrepid Lower Villagers are gathered on this raw night for the third in a series of visioning meetings. There’s a wonkiness to the proceedings, starting with that cringe-inducing label, visioning. The agenda includes a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) and is peppered with terms like wayfinding and viewsheds. But beneath the arid crust of public-policy jargon is a molten core, and meeting chair Mat Eddy, Kennebunk’s director of economic development, drills straight into the heart of it.
“What is a good developer?” Eddy asks.
The question hangs for a moment, like a well-struck golf ball, then it lands in the rough. Infectious snickers sweep through the room. Good developer? That’s an oxymoron!
Eddy knew this was coming. Over the past few years, a wave of commercial development has swept over Kennebunk and its neighbor across the Kennebunk River, Kennebunkport, giving fancy facelifts to modest motels and inns and elevating the dining scene with restaurants serving $37 entrées. Many business owners and residents welcome the transformation — and the affluent clientele it is attracting — but some people fear the Kennebunks are becoming a too planned and too precious Disney version of Maine. The Lower Village visioning meetings were called after Kennebunk residents objected so vociferously to one proposed development — an 80-unit hotel next to Federal Jack’s, the seminal brewpub on the Kennebunk River — that developer David Bateman abandoned the plan. “The community was so strongly against it, so emotional,” Eddy later explains, “we said, ‘Okay, this obviously pushed an envelope. So let’s open the envelope and see what’s inside.’ ”
What Eddy found inside was a fiercely palpable sense of place. “The direction I get is, ‘We want to maintain this village feel,’ ” he says. “Everyone is concerned about preserving the character of the community. But how you get there — that’s the devil in the details.”
[I]dentity crises in Lower Village aren’t exactly new. The place used to be called Harbor Village (and it may even be called that again if an initiative generated during those visioning meetings comes to pass). Unofficially it’s also been called Taint Town — as in ’tain’t Kennebunkport exactly and ’tain’t really Kennebunk either.
Lower Village is about four miles from Kennebunk’s Upper Square District. Upper Square and the rest of the downtown are so appealingly old-fashioned, it can seem as if the properties are trying to out-quaint each other. (You know you have serious antiquarian cred when you boast the state’s oldest historic district.) For a primer on New England architecture and old-money stuffiness, stroll Main Street, with its brick sidewalks, brick storefronts, and Brick Store Museum, then turn onto Summer Street, with its captains’ homes and other stately mansions. There’s the James Hubbard House (Colonial). The Taylor–Berry House (Federal). The Hugh McCulloch House (Georgian). The Nathaniel Lord Thompson House (Greek Revival). The John Adams Lord House (Italianate). The Horatio Moody House (Second Empire). The Hartley Lord House (Queen Anne). The Charles Goodnow House (Colonial Revival). And then there are the hybrids, such as the Phineas Hemmenway House (Federal and Greek Revival) and the George W. Bourne House, a.k.a. the Wedding Cake House (an ostentatious mashup of Federal and Gothic Revival).
But as Summer Street segues into Port Road, there’s a gradual transition from residential to rural and back again. By the time you reach Lower Village, you feel like you’re in a different town altogether. For Eddy, that disconnectedness can be a source of frustration. “If you were to take the Lower Village, with its water,” he says, “and put it together with the downtown, you’d have the perfect downtown.”
Instead, Lower Village shares its water with Kennebunkport’s Dock Square, a mere 88 feet away across the crumbling Mathew J. Lanigan Bridge (the state Department of Transportation plans to replace the bridge in 2017). But despite being a joined-at-the-hip locale, the two places are markedly different. On the Kennebunk side of the river, says Eddy, “You’ve got residences, you’ve got businesses, you’ve got restaurants and bars, you’ve got hotels, all in near proximity to one another.”
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Dock Square, by contrast, is a self-contained, tourist-oriented commercial district, separate from the surrounding neighborhood — and the neighbors want to keep it that way. “We have a large number of retired people in town,” says David James, pesident of the Kennebunkport Residents Association. “They don’t really appreciate having all the tourists, although they know it helps keep the town vibrant economically.”
The irony is that Kennebunkport’s most famous retirees, George and Barbara Bush, are also responsible for much of the tourist traffic. Just as the Kennedy compound helped boost Cape Cod’s profile in the 1960s, the Bush compound at Walker’s Point has given Kennebunkport the kind of international name recognition that no series of visioning meetings could ever conjure.
And while it’s inarguably better to be famous for housing former presidents than for a prostitution scandal (Kennebunk’s most recent claim to fame was the arrest and conviction of a Zumba instructor who ran a prostitution business out of her studio), many Kennebunkport residents could do without the attention. “In the summer you have all the cruise ships coming into Portland and all the tourists pouring down into Kennebunkport to see the Bush estate,” James says. “It gets a little tedious trying to get through the Dock Square area. Thirty tour buses will descend on the town in one afternoon. That’s 1,200 people wandering the streets.”
But not enough of those tourists wander up Western Avenue into Lower Village to suit some Kennebunk merchants. That reveals another irony: Kennebunk, which has roughly three times the population of Kennebunkport and more people living paycheck to paycheck, would like to be what Eddy calls “a full-service, year-round community” with a substantial middle class. A large infusion of tourist dollars and a longer shoulder season would help. But many of those tourist dollars still end up in Kennebunkport, where the wealthy retirees would rather see the tourist trade end after Labor Day. “We like it the way it is in the wintertime,” James says.
[W]here some see two communities, others see only one. “When you live here,” developer and hotelier Tim Harrington says, “that little bridge is a meaningless divider. I’ve lived in Kennebunk, and I’ve lived in Kennebunkport. It’s the same village.”
Harrington is sitting in David’s KPT, a swanky restaurant in Dock Square overlooking the Kennebunk River. David’s KPT (named after Portland chef David Turin) is part of The Boathouse Waterfront, a $400-a-night hotel that is one of eight hotels and seven restaurants developed by Harrington’s company, the Kennebunkport Resort Collection (KRC), in the Kennebunks over the past six years.
As a marketing strategy, the “meaningless divider” mentality began to catch on several years ago when some businesses in Lower Village simply co-opted “Kennebunkport” as part of their name. Now there’s a movement to eliminate specificity altogether as more and more merchants and chamber-of-commerce types refer to the two towns collectively as the Kennebunks. David’s KPT is itself a subtle example of this shift away from two town names, evoking Kennebunkport while simultaneously de-emphasizing it.
Harrington is fully invested in the strategy. “All of our marketing and all of our PR is built around the destination of the Kennebunks,” he says. “We believe that a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Others, however, see not a rising tide but a tsunami, fearing a wave of high-end development will overrun the old, distinct neighborhoods and leave in its wake a smoothed-over, 92-square-mile plain of tourist bait. Consider some of the reactions when Harrington converted an old house on Western Avenue, in the heart of Kennebunk’s Lower Village, into a boutique hotel.
“Everyone is talking about the shocking transformation of a Federal-style farmhouse, whose proud façade graced Chase Hill since its construction 150 or more years ago,” wrote Kennebunkport resident Susan Graham on her blog, Overheard at the Post Office. “The new structure, modestly labeled ‘The Grand’ but more accurately described as ‘The Super-Colossal,’ is over-scaled, too high, and too large in volume. It towers above everything around it.”
A local band called the Sock Puppets has lampooned Harrington and his ambitions with a song, “Diamond Tim Harpoon”: “There came into town one day a stranger/And he waved his plump and pampered hands around/‘Everything you have, good folks, I’ll buy it/I’ll tear everything you built on down.’”
It’s not that Harrington’s opponents object to tourism per se. Instead, some see his efforts as a misguided attempt to bulldoze away the clapboard funk that made the area around the Kennebunk River so popular in the first place. Even KRC’s trendy prepositional labels strike a wrong note. One Dock at Kennebunkport Inn. The Lodge on the Cove. Square Peg at Round Hole.
Harrington rejects such criticism. “We’re proud of what we’ve done,” he says. “We have a good reputation for doing things kind of in keeping with the culture and the look of a historic New England fishing village.” And he has plenty of allies around town who agree, including some whose support might seem counterintuitive. Take Steve Kingston, who has operated the Clam Shack on the Kennebunk River since 2000. Kingston now finds himself competing not only with Harrington’s high-end eateries, but also Tia’s Topside (a Boston export) and, new in 2015, the Spirit of Massachusetts (a 125-foot schooner converted to a floating restaurant) and Ports of Italy (a Boothbay Harbor export). How does Kingston feel about peddling his famous take-out in the midst of all that fine dining?
“I think it’s great,” he says. “I absolutely welcome it on a few different levels. In a competitive sense I welcome the matching of good food with good food, drawing more diners to the area. That’s good for all of us. Restaurants with great reputations will continue to put the Kennebunks on the map.”
Everyone is concerned about preserving the character of the community. But how you get there — that’s the devil in the details. Mat Eddy
[W]hile it’s generated more controversy, the recent spate of commercial development pales next to the wave of residential development — or, perhaps more accurately, residential redevelopment. “That means properties that have already been built that are remodeled or renovated,” says Wayne Berry, a building contractor and former Kennebunk selectman. “There’s a lot of that going on, mostly because of the lack of raw land.”
Much of that land was snapped up during the area’s first great wave of development, in the mid- to late-19th century. The Kennebunks had more hotel rooms in 1900 than today. Many private waterfront cottages have been around even longer. So wealthy newcomers have to be creative. “The opportunities lie in finding a gem in the rough that you can polish up,” Berry says. “We’ve seen teardowns and redevelopments of subdivisions at Kennebunk Beach that were new in the 1960s. These were not derelict buildings — they were somebody’s everyday home.”
Redevelopers who are restricted to an existing footprint often build up instead of out. “The ability to rebuild high enough to see over those 1800s beach cottages makes it worthwhile for somebody to come in and pay a reasonably hefty price,” Berry says.
If you haven’t visited in a while, the change can be jarring. “You remember the town of your youth, and you regret that it isn’t like that anymore,” says Tom Bradbury, executive director of the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. He laughs and adds, “And there’s nobody who does that more than me, probably.” All the same, Bradbury acknowledges, “Every place is in a constant state of evolution. And if you’re not evolving, you’re declining.”
As an example, he cites his own house, which was built in 1730. Bradbury’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather acquired the house in 1736. “And one of the first things he did was add on to it,” Bradbury says. “One time, I had an archaeologist go through the house with me, and I was saying that I wished there were more original pieces that I could see. He pointed out that the house is still here today only because people made it livable for the standard of their day. When electricity came, they added electricity. When plumbing came, they added plumbing. When indoor heating came, they added indoor heating. And each time they were thrilled when they made those changes.”
We have a good reputation for doing things kind of in keeping with the culture and the look of a historic New England fishing village. Tim Harrington
Renovating a historic structure is one thing. Recreating one is something else. The trust has encountered stiff opposition to its proposed River Heritage Educational Center, which involves building a replica of an 18th-century tidal gristmill that burned down in 1994 and using it for programs, including milling demonstrations. Nearby residents say not only is the project not permitted in their historic district neighborhood, but also the trust is straying from its mission of land conservation and historic preservation in pursuit of what is essentially a tourist attraction.
“I’m afraid that the Perkins Grist Mill does not exist,” said John Bannon, a lawyer representing residential abutters, at a planning board meeting last fall. “I’m sorry, but it has been gone, it hasn’t been operated since 1937 and it has not physically existed, except as archeological remains, since 1994. So, what the trust is proposing is not to protect historic resources. It is, in fact, impairing them by introducing new, disparate elements.”
The trust also raised eyebrows — and some hackles — when it supported Hidden Pond, Tim Harrington’s $900-a-night cottages on Goose Rocks Road (Harrington calls it “summer camp with five-star-hotel services”). During Hidden Pond’s grand opening, the trust received the proceeds from the resort’s “decorator showcase” event. While conceding that he “can see where some could question” the trust’s cozy relationship with Harrington, Bradbury rejects the idea that any alliance between a developer and a conservation group is a conflict of interest. “In fact,” he says, “I saw it as just the opposite.”
It gets a little tedious trying to get through the Dock Square area. Thirty tour buses will descend on the town in one afternoon. That’s 1,200 people wandering the streets. David James
Bradbury says the trust changed its philosophy more than 30 years ago, after a protracted legal battle against a proposed subdivision next to one of its holdings. “The developers walked away frustrated that they couldn’t make the profits they had foreseen,” he says, “and we walked away frustrated that we hadn’t fully saved what we might have. But we also came away with the knowledge that fighting is expensive and frustrating and not any fun. So we said, ‘Instead of defining ourselves by what we’re against, let’s define ourselves by what we’re for.’
“Now, if we value a piece of land and we think the community would value it as well, we buy it and set it aside instead of waiting until it comes on the market to fight for it. And instead of raising money for lawsuits that get marginal results, we raise the money to get exactly what we want.”
The land that Harrington acquired for Hidden Pond, Bradbury says, was never on the trust’s wish list, therefore, it had no reason to oppose the development.
Bradbury contends that fears of developers destroying the Kennebunks’ unique character are overblown. “Those [natural] elements in the community that make it special and give it that sense of place are still there,” he says. “The town will continue to revolve around those elements, and the core look of the town will remain despite changes in the look of the houses or what’s happening in the commercial zones.”
What it ultimately comes down to, says Bradbury, is that “there is no way of codifying taste. That’s just a struggle in futility.”
“It’s so subjective to say ‘Keep [development] within the New England charm of the community, because everybody’s vision of that is different,” agrees Bonnie Clement, owner of H.B. Provisions, a year-round general store in the Lower Village. For her part, Clement sees the debate over esthetics in the Kennebunks’ as a healthy sign.
“If something doesn’t feel right, we speak our word about it,” she says. “If there’s grumbling at these [public] meetings, it’s because people care.”
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